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Testing scandal

Dear readers,

I have been silent since June fourth because my car, without my consent, left the road and crashed into a field—totaling it, but fortunately not me. I’m very lucky to have escaped with minor damage, but enough to “lay me low” for the past month plus. But, when I read Rachel Aviv’s marvelous article about cheating to boost scores in Atlanta (July 2lst New Yorker) I felt propelled to respond. It is time to return.

What a perceptive and clear account of an old wound. And done with a rare sympathy for the “villains”—teachers and administrators. Especially those far down the hierarchy. It is a subject about which I too have been unwisely silent for too long.

Aviv tracks math teacher Damany Lewis and his principal Christopher Waller and the life inside their middle school—starting in 2006 during Beverly Hall’s superintendency. She does not condone the many teachers who followed Lewis and Waller’s lead. But she describes the relentless, not quite inevitable path they each took to protect their students, the school and, of course, their own jobs too. They lost on all counts. But they are, I believe, only the tip of an iceberg that has been around for a very long time—and which the media has deliberately refused to take into account—and has in fact aided and abetted

I know personally.

In the 1970s—when I was the teacher-director of the newly formed Central Park East elementary school in East Harlem‑I faced a similar dilemma. Because we were an “alternative” school located in larger neighborhood school, our scores were not reported separately in any public way. Thus I could ignore test score data published annually in the New York Times, etc. But one year I noticed that our host school, like a few others in the District, had vastly improved their test scores, while ours remained at a reasonably low end along with a majority of the District’s schools. We had little respect for what the tests actually told us about children’s reading, but we knew their test results could matter later on for our older students and, furthermore, given our school’s “experimental” staus, good scores might matter. What to do?

In short, the pressure to game the scores or cheat outright, is not such a new phenomenon. We faced the same dilemma Lewis and Waller did—just 40 years earlier. As a school Board member in my home District, I witnessed the pressure put on superintendents, teachers and principals to raise scores. Each was given a target to reach—not too much or too little was the request. One school got into trouble for its too rapid ascent, but most for their insufficient improvement. Meanwhile in East Harlem the new superintendent was trying to make some fairly rapid changes, aimed particularly at the middle schools. He knew that test scores were one way his novel practices would be judged. I was his fan and supporter. I was not surprised that he was elated by the rising scores and not concerned about the believability of the miraculous improvements of a few schools.

I went to see him to raise some concerns. I told him that I had long been suspicious about reported test scores. I had made a point of studying those locations where scores rose unusually rapidly. I discovered, for example, that some could be accounted for by a change in the population served, but others were more puzzling. When asked, principals would point to a new reading series, for example, but since this series was in use in other schools whose scores had dropped it seemed an incomplete answer. I noted that there were such “miracle” score in our East Harlem district. No one in the testing industry, I argued, believed that credible. Did he? He acknowledged some doubts. I suggested he pursue a sampled retesting of some schools and see whether the changes held up. He said it would create a lot of unneeded anxiety and anger in schools selected and that he felt it unwise to do so at this time. But, I persisted.

If the validity of test scores were never going to be questioned it put all schools in an awkward position. Should they do “whatever necessary” to raise their scores too? Should I? I told him that reporters often called me to inquire about test results and that I felt I was misleading them by not mentioning my suspicions.

In fact, my suspicions had been reaffirmed in a District where I worked before CPE was founded. A teacher had told me, in a panic, that she had cheated (by using the test as a practice test beforehand) and was afraid a student might expose her. In fact, the next year I overheard her bragging to a colleague about her spectacular test scores. No one confronted her or questioned her amazing teaching.

Thus I told an inquiring reporter that the scores might not be entirely what they seemed to be. A few days later the superintendent was waiting for me after recess, with the Daily News in his hand. He asked only if the quotation by me was accurate and left satisfied.

The tests themselves are incredibly misleading and biased against kids the further they are from the “mainstream” in home-language, culture, family wealth and education, etc. I had documented this in a study I conducted while teaching in Central Harlem. The study was published by City College—with recorded interviews with students about the reasons for their answers. But it took a while before I realized that, as the tests carried increasingly greater stakes, we were all affected by these not so subtle pressures to raise scores one way or another. It was not only changes in the curriculum and pedagogy, which I regretted, but also in the rampant increase (I was sure) of cheating. As long as neither the System nor the Media, now forewarned, took test score miracles at face value the pressure on everyone to cheat would only get worse. (Wouldn’t there be more cheating if we thought there was no auditing of returns?)

It is absurd and there’s even a sociological “law” about this phenomenon of cheating and gaming screos: “as the data carries increasingly higher stakes, the data becomes increasingly less trustworthy.” The new “reform-by-testing” movement has utterly ignored this “law” and builds its recipe for reform on continually raising the stakes. That this leads many students and teachers to cheat in one way or another is hardly surprising. In fact, the teachers who most care about their kids and the school, and who know the tests are a poor discriminator, are (like Lewis in Atlanta) lured into viewing the situation as a no-win. They are often driven by a desire to protect children from being abused by an inappropriate measure of their success, a good school from being closed, and their own work denigrated. Teachers resort to turning their classrooms into test prep centers to everything up to erasing a few answers here and there.

My sympathies go out to all. I even feel sad for Beverly Hall whom I had very slightly known and liked. I certainly sympathized with my superintendent for not wanting to pursue the matter further. Thus I felt as Aviv did in her New Yorker piece—sympathetic to the cheaters.

Meanwhile the real villains have never ben called to account. I mean everyone who has encouraged the use of such data inappropriately as well as the media for making it so easy for so many of us to become corrupted in the process.

Thanks Rachel Aviv; your story meant a lot to me. It brought back a moral burden that has bothered me for all the years since.


9 Responses

  1. Campbell’s Law, as the New Yorker article points out. It’s powerful.

  2. To some extent, we all share the burden, However, I am particularly troubled that foundations and researchers are rarely, if ever, implicated. All too often researchers are funded to investigate “what’s working in schools and districts” by the very foundations that fund the improvements the researchers are studying.

  3. […] In the 1970s—when I was the teacher-director of the newly formed Central Park East elementary school in East Harlem‑I faced a similar dilemma. Because we were an “alternative” school located in larger neighborhood school, our scores were not reported separately in any public way. Thus I could ignore test score data published annually in the New York Times, etc. But one year I noticed that our host school, like a few others in the District, had vastly improved their test Read the full article […]

  4. Thank you for this piece, Deb. Also, thank you for not letting the car “total” you! We need your voice more than EVER.

  5. This is so sad. In our book, THE CLOSING DOOR: CONSERVATIVE POLICY AND BLACK OPPORTUNITY, we documented the incredible test fraud in Atlanta, we documented how a generation earlier, under Supt. Alonzo Crim, The Atlanta public schools were celebrated across the country for very high achievement levels and enormous and rapid progress. They were hailed in the journals, books, in the press, and an award from Harvard as proving that the”communty of believers” model could overcome all the barriers that faced students in central cities. It turned out that it was accomplished by testing kids at the wrong grade levels and a variety of other forms of misrepresentation and fraud together with great pressure to report huge and dishonest successes. It turned out that actual performance levels were the obverse of what had been claimed and were very strongly related to racial and economic segregation. It is a shame that people want to believe so strongly and are so willing to accept and massively reward highly improbable claims that this happens again and again, even in the same city, rather than being honest and systematically addressing and demanding resources to overcome the actual barriers that the kids, the neighborhoods, the teachers, etc. actually face. The desire for a simple story of the rapid triumph of will over all obstacles without the need for any focused resources or better teachers is what people want to believe. They want to believe that there is no necessity to make it possible for these kids to access schools that are actually functioning better or to recruit teacher and administrators willing to undertake the hard struggle to transform individual schools The press and scholars have a special responsibility to look at evident fraud and the describe the realities and the kinds of long-term changes needed for a believable remedy.

  6. What makes it doubly sad is that if someone blows the whistle, they more than likely will be shunned as well. He/She will lose his/her job and reputation and probably not work again. The safest path is to be quiet and try to do your job without compromising your ethics.

  7. So sorry about your accident and so happy you are well, feisty and have reported this. I remember a rookie principal telling me he would not give the ELA to certain students I’m order to game the testing. At the time, I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable but, until I read your post today, didn’t realize the implications. He was young, caring and full of positive energy – gaming the system because he cared about his students’ success. And his school’s public profile. And, I suppose, his job. As always, it’s the kids who ultimately are cheated.
    Be well and thanks so much for your words.

  8. Eight years ago I found one of my kids’ schools cheating and I verified it with a teacher who was willing to talk to me in private. There were several problems, but one was that all of the tests in my son’s classroom had broken seals and bent pages, appearing to have been opened and leafed through. (Another was a writing prompt that was too close to a practice writing prompt the kids had been given a couple of days before the state test. I got a copy of the actual school practice prompt and faxed it to the DOE.) I called the State DOE and spoke to two women who thanked me for calling but also told me that there were manufacturing problems with the tests so that 10% of all tests were not sealed properly when delivered to schools. I asked several reporters about that, but none of the reporters had heard of a manufacturing defect and they all thought I was lying and wouldn’t look into the matter. I also told the superintendent of our schools who was more worried about what the DOE would do to the district than the fact that one of his schools was cheating. I later called the DOE to find out if anything had come of my complaint and was told that the two women I had originally spoken with did not exist. Yeah, right. When scores came out I noticed that the school’s scores miraculously went up. My complaints were never made public and the cheating was covered up by both the school district and the state. I think this stuff goes on even more than anyone realizes. I only happened to notice this one because my son told me that all the kids in his class complained to the proctor about the condition of their test booklets and the teacher was willing to confidentially confirm that to me. The proctor called in the problem to the guidance office as she was instructed to do, but guidance told her not to worry about it.

  9. Read this and thought it wonderful. Hope you are feeling better. Love,anna

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